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First edition cover
|Genre||autobiography, misery memoir|
|5 September 1996|
|LC Class||E184.I6 M117 1996|
Angela's Ashes: A Memoir is a 1996 memoir by the Irish-American author Frank McCourt, with various anecdotes and stories of his childhood. It details his very early childhood in Brooklyn, New York, but focuses primarily on his life in Limerick, Ireland. It also includes his struggles with poverty and his father's alcoholism.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, on 19 August 1930, Frank (Francis) McCourt is the oldest son of Malachy McCourt and Angela Sheehan McCourt. Both of his parents emigrated from Ireland and married in a shotgun wedding over Angela's pregnancy with Frankie. Angela is originally from Limerick, Ireland, and is fond of music, singing, and dancing. Malachy, from Northern Ireland, is an alcoholic known for his "odd manner" and for telling fantastical stories about Irish heroes. Frankie is often said to closely resemble his father, having a hang-dog face and the same "odd manner." The narrative is told from the point of view of Frankie as a child.
In America, the McCourts live in modern tenement housing next to a park and share a floor, and a communal lavatory, with other immigrant families from Ireland, Italy, and the Jewish communities.
Frankie has four younger siblings: Malachy, born in 1931, who is often favored over Frankie for being an attractive, open child; blond twins Oliver and Eugene, born in 1932; and an infant sister, Margaret, in 1935.
The family often struggles with poverty as Malachy Sr. engages in an endless struggle to find work and alcohol. The family's prospects, and Angela's spirits, lift whenever he finds a new job and brings home his first week's wages, but eventually he finds himself spending all of his pay in pubs, despite Angela's many schemes to prevent him from doing so, and losing his job after a few weeks.
Margaret's birth seems to instill new life into the family: the whole family falls in love with her, Malachy Sr most of all. He gives up drinking and finds steady work to support the family. However, due to her parents' ignorance of children's disease, Margaret lives for only seven weeks. With her death, Malachy Sr abandons his family for days to indulge in an alcoholic binge, while Angela falls into a severe, debilitating depression. Frank, age four, is forced to feed and care for his younger siblings, often with the kind intervention of the neighbors. The neighbors soon realize the family's dire straits and intervene, contacting Angela's cousins, who in turn recommend the family return to Ireland with Angela's family in Limerick.
Angela is pregnant with a new baby, as they return to Ireland from America, and lose the child, shortly after moving to Limerick.
The Great Depression has struck Ireland, particularly Limerick, even harder than it did the United States. There is little work, and conditions for poor families are miserable. Malachy Sr finds it even more difficult to find work because of his Northern Ireland accent and mannerisms, the children are mocked for their American accents, and many neighbors, as well as Angela's family, look down on the McCourts for their return from America.
The family is forced to rely on the dole and charity from the local Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, which requires extensive, and humiliating application processes. Angela and Malachy Sr often argue about this as Malachy drinks the welfare money meant to feed the family, and views Angela's asking for charity as begging and degrading. For many years, the family subsists on little more than bread and tea.
Within a year of the family's arrival, Oliver and Eugene also die—Oliver of what is implied to be scarlet fever and Eugene, a few months later, from grieving the loss of his twin and pneumonia. After each death, Angela sinks into depression, and the family moves because she cannot bear being in the same house. Each move results in the McCourts sliding down into worse and worse circumstances. Eventually, they end up living in a slum house. The entire ground floor floods for half a year, requiring the family to live in an upstairs room together. Their house is located next to the only lavatory on the whole street. There is a constant traffic of families dumping chamber pots in the filthy lavatory, which often backs up and smells. Two additional baby brothers, Michael (born 1936), and Alphie (Alphonsus, b. 1940), are born in Limerick.
Frankie grows up in Limerick as a sensitive and intelligent child. He often makes unique observations from those around him and has an emotional need to help. His strict Catholic upbringing preys on his imaginative nature and thoughts on whether he will be going to hell plague on his mind. Frankie must balance his Catholic beliefs against a church which frequently rejects him due to his poverty and family, his Irish upbringing against his desire to return to America once he's grown, and his desire for his father's attention against his loyalty to his mother. Strangers often prefer his more attractive and outgoing siblings, but Frankie wins over a few champions, mainly in the form of his school teachers and the various adults who hire him for odd jobs.
Frank develops typhoid fever and is taken to a Catholic hospital, where for the first time he has adequate food, warmth, and access to limitless books, and the time to read them, giving birth to his lifelong love of literature. Frankie additionally contracts chronic conjunctivitis, which does little to improve his looks or perceived, sarcastic demeanor.
At the outbreak of World War II, many Limerick men find work at a defence plant in Coventry, England, leaving their families behind and sending back money to support them. These good-paying jobs lift many of the McCourts' neighbors out of poverty. Malachy Sr leaves the family behind and secures a defence job. For several weeks, the payments allow the family to enjoy small luxuries such as candy and visits to the movies. But soon, the money stops coming and Malachy Sr abandons his family for good.
Eventually, the family is evicted and homeless. With few options, Angela and her children move in with her bachelor cousin, Laman Griffin. Laman is a petty tyrant who resents the presence of the children and enjoys degrading them and Angela. A preteen Frankie resents this treatment, but puts up with it for his mother and younger brothers. Upon discovering that part of Laman's deal for providing housing is a sexual relationship with Angela, Frankie has a fight with Laman and is thrown out of the house. Shortly after, Malachy Jr leaves Laman Griffin's to join the military as a bugle boy.
Frankie moves in with his maternal uncle, who was dropped on his head as a child and now lives in the house left to him by his deceased mother. Frank gets a job as a telegram delivery boy on his 14th birthday and begins to support himself while saving for his passage to America. The interesting people and situations Frankie meets on his deliveries cause him to grow as a person.
Frankie supports his youngest brothers by providing food and respite from Laman Griffin when they come to visit him. Eventually, his brothers ask if they can move in with him, which he allows, and they are shortly followed by Angela. Frankie must now turn over the majority of his wages to his mother as the bread winner of the family, though he still takes on various odd jobs to earn extra for his ticket to America, such as writing threatening collection letters on behalf of a local moneylender.
On his sixteenth birthday, Frank's uncle takes him to the pub to buy him his first beer. Frank gets drunk and returns home, singing like his father used to. When his mother shames him for drinking the way his father did, Frank hits her, accusing her of being a whore for Laman Griffin, and is immediately ashamed of himself.
One day Frank returns to the moneylender's home to find she has died. Liberated, Frank takes money from her purse and throws her ledger of debtors into the river to free the neighborhood of their debts. The contents of the moneylender's purse give him enough money to return to America at the age of nineteen. Frank arrives in Poughkeepsie, New York, ready to begin a new life in the country of his birth.
- Francis McCourt: The writer of the book and main character. Frank is a religious, determined, and intelligent Irish American who struggles to find happiness and success in the harsh community
- Malachy McCourt: Frank's father and an alcoholic. Though his addiction almost ruins the family, Mr. McCourt manages to obtain his children's affection by telling Irish stories
- Angela McCourt, née Sheehan: Frank's hardworking mother who puts her family first and holds high expectations for her children. She is also humorous and witty
- Malachy (Jr.): Frank's younger and supposedly more attractive and charming brother
- Oliver: Frank's brother, twin to Eugene, who dies at an early age in Ireland
- Eugene: Frank's brother, who dies of pneumonia six months after Oliver, his twin
- Margaret: Frank's only little sister, who dies in her sleep in the United States
- Michael: Frank's brother
- Alphonsus: Frank's youngest brother
- Aunt Aggie: Frank's childless aunt. She does not approve of Angela's husband or how Angela is raising and caring for her children, but is helpful and loyal nonetheless
- Uncle Pa Keating: Aunt Aggie's husband, who is especially fond of Eugene
- Uncle Pat Sheehan: Angela's brother, who was dropped on the head when he was young
- Grandma: Angela's mother and Frank's grandmother, who sends Angela money to come to Ireland
- Paddy Clohessy: a poor boy in the same class as Frank, who considers Frank a friend after Frank shares with him a much-coveted raisin.
- Brendan "Question" Quigley, occasionally (not to mention, inconsistently) referred to as Brendan Kieley: another classmate of Frank's, who often gets into trouble because of his tendency to ask too many questions.
- Fintan Slattery: a classmate of Frank's who invites Frank and Paddy over for lunch, but proceeds to eat all of it in front of them without offering them any.
- Mikey Molloy: Son of Nora Molloy, who is older than Frank, has seizures, and is the "expert on Girls' Bodies and Dirty Things".
- Patricia Madigan: A patient at the Fever Hospital who befriends Frank and tells him bits of poetry, notably "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes, but dies before she can tell him the rest of the poem
- Seamus: The hospital janitor who helps Frank and Patricia communicate, and who later recites poetry to Frank in the eye hospital
- Mr. Timoney: An old man who pays Frank to read books to him
- Dotty O’Neill: Frank's somewhat eccentric 4th class teacher who loves Euclid
- Mr. O’Dea: Frank's 5th class teacher and headmaster
- Theresa Carmody: A 17-year-old consumptive girl with whom Frank has a sexual relationship. Frank desperately worries about the fate of Theresa's soul, which he thinks he is jeopardizing by having premarital sex with her
- Mickey Spellacy: A friend of Frank's who, anticipating his sister's death, promises Frank he can come to the wake and eat some of the food
Literary significance and reception
After traveling to America (where the book ends), Frank ended up working at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City, where he remained until 1951. Frank was drafted during the Korean war to be stationed in Bavaria, Germany. After being discharged, Frank returned to New York and dabbled with several different jobs until he was accepted into NYU. After graduating in 1957 with a bachelor's degree in English, McCourt turned to teaching in New York schools. He then obtained his master's degree and traveled to Dublin in pursuit of his PhD, which he never completed.
Frank McCourt was elected Irish American of the Year in 1998.
McCourt was accused of exaggerating his family's impoverished upbringing by many Limerick natives, including Richard Harris. McCourt's mother had denied the accuracy of his stories shortly before her death in 1981, walking out of a stage performance by her two elder sons; Malachy's recollection is that she said it was "all a pack of lies."
Local writer and filmmaker Gerry Hannan has compiled a list of 117 inaccuracies in Angela's Ashes, most notably, that McCourt claims that Willie Harrold charged people to watch his sisters undressing, but Harrold had no sisters; McCourt's sexual relationship with Teresa Carmody is considered to be tarnishing the name of a girl who died young, and his working as a telegraph boy is said not to be true; and that the family never lived with Laman (Gerry) Griffin. McCourt is accused of hatred toward "pillars" of Limerick city, especially the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, the Catholic Church and Munster Rugby. Hannan confronted McCourt on The Late Late Show in 1999. Paddy Malone, who appears on the book's cover in a school photograph, claims that "McCourt calls this book a memoir, but it is filled with lies and exaggerations. The McCourts were never that poor." For example, McCourt was a member of the Boy Scouts, which was a middle-class pursuit that the poor could not afford, and family photographs show the children and Angela as well-fed.
Chicago journalist Mike Meyer visited Limerick and took the tour of the city sparked by publication of the book. He realized how much the city had changed since McCourt's childhood years there, including destruction of the slum area where his family lived when Frank was in grade school.
McCourt described the book as "a memoir, not an exact history", and admitted to fabricating the story about Willie Harrold's sister. Similarly, Alan Parker, who directed the film version, said that Angela's Ashes "was a work of art which met Gore Vidal's definition of autobiography, being an 'impression' of a life, rather than a memoir."
In 1999 a film version was released. It was co-written and directed by Alan Parker starring Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge, as the Young, Middle and Older Frank McCourt respectively and Emily Watson as McCourt's mother Angela, Robert Carlyle as the father.
The film begins when the McCourt family move back to Ireland after experiencing hardship in America. Many of the Street scenes were filmed in Cork, Ireland. The film soundtrack was composed and conducted by John Williams, and features songs by Billie Holiday and Sinéad O'Connor.
A stage musical adaptation of Angela's Ashes by Adam Howell (Music & Lyrics) and Paul Hurt (Book) received its world premiere at the Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick on July 6, 2017 with following performances at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin and the Grand Opera House, Belfast. 
- McCourt, Frank (1996). Angela's Ashes. 1230 Avenue of the Americas New York, NY 10020: Scribner. ISBN 0-684-87435-0.
- "The 1997 Pulitzer Prize Winners: Biography or Autobiography". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved December 6, 2014.
- "National Book Critics Circle: Awards". National Book Critics Circle. Retrieved December 6, 2014.
- "Frank McCourt obituary". The Telegraph. July 20, 2009. Retrieved November 25, 2019.
- Grimes, William (July 19, 2009). "Frank McCourt, Whose Irish Childhood Illuminated His Prose, Is Dead at 78". The New York Times. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
- McEntee, John (December 25, 2011). "Bitter feud between fellow Limerick men over destiny of 'Angela's Ashes'". Irish Independent. Retrieved December 27, 2011.
- Hannan, Gerard (December 5, 2012). "A Miserable Liar?". Irish Media Man. Retrieved November 25, 2019.
- "Frank McCourt/Gerry Hannan "you're a liar"". Late Late Show 1999 – via www.youtube.com.
- Brennan, Zoe (July 21, 2009). "A miserable liar? Angela's Ashes inspired a new literary genre - but was Frank McCourt REALLY telling the truth?" (pdf). The Daily Mail. Retrieved November 25, 2019.
- Hannan, Gerard (December 5, 2012). "A City Descending Into 'Ashes'". Irish Media Man. Retrieved November 25, 2019.
- "Yet another article relating to Gerry Hannan and Frank McCourt". Gerry Hannan The Truth. July 28, 2009.
- McNally, Frank (January 13, 2000). "`Ashes' a work of art, says film director". The Irish Times. Retrieved November 25, 2019.
- "Angela's Ashes" – via www.imdb.com.
- "The reviews are in, here's what everybody thinks of Angela's Ashes the Musical". Irish Examiner. July 14, 2017. Retrieved September 25, 2017.
- Hagan, Edward A. “Really an Alley Cat? Angela's Ashes and Critical Orthodoxy”, New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua 4:4 (Winter 2000): 39-52.
- Lenz, Peter. "'To Hell or to America?': Tragicomedy in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and the Irish Literary Tradition", Anglia: Zeitschrift für Englische Philologie 118:3 (2000): 411-20.
- McCourt, Frank. Tis: A Memoir, Scribner (August 2000)
- Frank McCourt discusses Angela's Ashes on the BBC World Book Club
- Cullen, Kevin. “Memoir Lashed, and Loved: Angela’s Ashes Author Finds Foes, Friends in Limerick”, Limerick Globe October 29, 1997
- Late Author’s Younger Brother Remembers Childhood Poverty Depicted in Angela’s Ashes - video report by Democracy Now!
- Limerick Leader's Angela's Ashes tour: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
- Booknotes interview with McCourt on Angela's Ashes, August 31, 1997